Peace and reconciliation in DR Congo.
Franco Torres cmf
Claretian Secretariat of JPIC in DRC
In the following lines, I will barely manage to sketch two glimpses of the urgency of peace in the DRC. The first one takes as a starting point the arbitrary arrests in the Claretian Parish of Saint Paul Kingandu, in the west of the DRC, and from there presents how a community tries to build citizenship. The second projects from a local conflict with tribal connotations to considering the root causes of violent clashes in the DRC. From there, I believe it is possible to visualize the unavoidable socio-environmental character of reconciliation in the Great Lakes region.
From arbitrary arrests to the construction of citizenship.
In November 2019, the residents of Sondji, a village located in the ejido of the rural parish of Saint Paul Kingandu, outraged by the rape of a girl in which the school principal was implicated, closed his office and demanded that he leave the village. The police and military persecution provoked by this “infraction” involved the indiscriminate arrest of more than 20 neighbors who suffered mistreatment for 3 or 4 days, depending on the case. Their families were not only violated at the time of arrest but also had to sacrifice their modest agricultural production to free them. Meanwhile, most of the young people from the six neighboring villages – many of them still high school students – fled to the bush, where they remained for several weeks.
Far from being an isolated case, this example shows how a good number of police and military officers in the rural area take as a pretext the rebuke of a possible infraction to organize extortion expeditions of the peasants, who more often than not lack the elements to defend themselves. The regularity of these exactions creates a generalized feeling of insecurity. It is perhaps for this reason that in a meeting with young people from Kingandu in which we presented the Sustainable Development Goals, at the time of ranking them according to the urgencies of the context, most of the participants prioritized peace and work. According to them, they did so in that order because without peace and a guarantee of fundamental freedoms; one cannot enjoy the benefits of decent work.
Faced with this situation, the ecclesial community coordinated actions with the diocesan commission for justice and peace, both to intervene in favor of the release of persons detained illegally and arbitrarily – in some cases, even minors – and to offer training in human rights, peaceful conflict resolution, and participatory governance. In fact, many of the complaints, to this day, are caused by disputes that, in principle, can be resolved without necessarily resorting to state intervention. Thus, our communities, and in particular the justice and peace commissions, have progressively taken on the task of reconciliation as part of their mission.
Moreover, aware that the strengthening of democratic institutions is intimately linked to the construction of peace and having received the relevant training, the parish community drew up a “mandate” in which, based on grassroots conversations, the most urgent problems of the population were gathered, and solutions were proposed. This mandate was presented to the provincial governor during his visit to the village in June this year. This experience is in continuity with the civic education campaign and the national election observation mission organized by the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace between 2017 and 2019. Indeed, the Church has played a prophetic role in the social mobilization that was decisive for holding the 2019 national elections; the challenge is updated because of the next national elections in 2023.
From tribal identities to integral reconciliation.
In a country of more than 300 ethnic groups, as is the DRC, the exact identity component that generates its great cultural diversity can also become a significant factor in the division. For example, in October of last year, a female hospital worker in Kingandu scolded an elderly and poor patient, evoking her ethnicity in a derogatory manner. This aroused the ire of one of her colleagues from the same clan as the patient; the case took on communal dimensions and was manipulated by a member of parliament belonging to one of the two communities. After a few weeks, a group of young people demonstrated in front of the hospital. As a result, it shut down part of its facilities, followed by police and military deployment in the area and the consequent flight of the young people into the bush.
Although the damage of this crisis ended up being less severe than in the Sondji case, it shows us that no community in the DRC is entirely safe from falling into tribalism and suffering consequences that often exceed the very domain of the community. Currently, in the Kwamouth and Bolobo territories of Mai Ndombe province, tensions linked to land occupation have triggered an armed conflict between the Yaka and Teke peoples that has already resulted in dozens of deaths and more than 9,000 displaced persons. However, as Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo implied on his return from his visit to the Kwamouth communities, such a conflict may be much more complex than a simple and localized tribal clash.
Although no official information supports it for the moment, a good part of the Congolese society shares the concern that such events are a new manifestation of the same destabilization crisis suffered at the other end of the country. On the one hand, knife attacks are spreading from the Bateke plain to the neighboring provinces of Kwilu and Kwangu. Presumably, Bororo muleteers arriving from the country’s east between 2017 and 2019 have been settling throughout this region. But on the other hand, these episodes of violence, whose focus is located in a strategic place to enter from the interior of the country to the capital through the waterways, occur in the context of an escalation of tension between the DRC and the neighboring country of Rwanda.
In fact, in his recent speech to the 77th General Assembly of the United Nations, President Felix Tshisekedi denounced the Rwandan aggression against the DRC through the direct incursion of its armed forces and the support of troops and war material to the terrorist movement M23. We must remember that for the last 30 years, the populations of the provinces of Ituri, Nord Kivu, and Sud Kivu have been suffering a real war perpetrated by about 120 armed groups, Congolese and foreign, who massacre defenseless peasants, rape women to instill panic and have already left 5.6 million refugees. The last report of the UN group of experts highlights the collaboration between the Rwandan army and one of these armed groups: the M23.
Indeed, the Congolese episcopate has been denouncing since the 1990s the permanent threat of a plan to balkanize the DRC. This plan concerns certain ethnic factions present in Rwanda and other countries in the Great Lakes region, demanding a redefinition of borders and transnational interests coveting the DRC’s strategic mineral reserves. And when these armed clashes suddenly arise between peoples who have historically lived more or less harmoniously, such as the Teke and Yaka in Kwamouth, it is challenging not to associate it with the same manipulation of tribal conflicts that have served to systematically destabilize the east of the country, weakening its social cohesion and endangering its very territorial integrity.
In this sense, the motto chosen by Pope Francis for his visit, “all reconciled in Christ,” is a strong and timely message aimed at healing not only conflicts with deep identity roots – tribal or national – but also the very bond between peoples, the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. Indeed, we will only be able to adequately dimension the complexity of the violence that the DRC is experiencing if we keep in mind the indissoluble socio-environmental character of peace and the justice of which it is the fruit. As long as we continue to think that the DRC is a rich country because it has fabulous cobalt, gold, diamonds, or oil reserves, we will be indebted to the extractivist model that is at the root of the violence. A reconciled Great Lakes region requires us to change our outlook.
As Claretian missionaries in the DRC, we have taken an essential step towards this horizon by committing ourselves to offer pastoral agents and Claretian educators compelling formative itineraries on social friendship and care for the shared home during the triennium 2022-2025. Let us hope that this commitment will bring us ever closer to those who suffer the effects of this war -including our sister, Mother Earth, directly- and that we will work for lasting peace with them.
Franco Torres cmf